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March 13, 2017 / Joanne Yeck

The Great Fresh of 1771

Virginia Gazette_masthead


In May 1771, a “Great Fresh” swept through Virginia. The flooding throughout the colony was devastating; however, the damage was highly selective.  On June 6, 1771, the Virginia Gazette reported:

. . . From the Mountains, to the Falls, the low Grounds have been swept of almost every Thing valuable; and the Soil is so much injured that it is thought not to be of Half its former Value, and a great Part is entirely ruined. . . . Appomattox has been little or Nothing affected, which proves that the Rains must have fallen high up the Country. . . . The Devastation on Roanoke is, if possible, still greater; in the Ruin of valuable Lands, Lots of Negroes, Stocks, Houses, &c.

The farms located at Buckingham County’s Horseshoe Bend, including Randolph Jefferson’s Snowden, did not escape the devastation. Today, in Scottsville’s canal basin museum, a monument stands to the town’s flood history, noting that at the Horseshoe Bend the river’s normal level is 4.6 feet. Dramatically etched at the bottom of the brick and slate tower is the following inscription:




Not long after the flood, Snowden’s immediate neighbor, Thomas Ballow, advertised the sale of his 1,000-acre farm on the James River in the September 12, 1771 issue of the Virginia Gazette, in which Ballow noted that the “Land [was] but little hurt by the late fresh.”  Did Ballow downplay the damage done or was his side of the river “little hurt”?

To be Sold by the Subscriber, in Buckingham County:

ONE THOUSAND ACRES OF LAND Lying on James River, and joining the Lands of Colonel Robert Bolling, at the Seven Islands. There is a Plantation in the low Ground that will work about eight Hands, with a very fine Apple Orchard, and the Land but little hurt by the late Fresh. About the same Quantity of Woodland on the River, not cleared.  For Terms apply to the Subscriber, living on the Premises, who will show the Land to any Person desirous of purchasing the same.


Ultimately, Thomas Ballow did not leave the Horseshoe Bend, remaining until his death on April 2, 1784.

The following year, Anthony Murray, Ballow’s neighbor at Buckingham County’s Horsebend, sold 60 barren acres of land to neighbor, Hardin Perkins. The property contained a demolished mill.  While it is unknown whether or not the Fresh of 1771 destroyed the mill, the coincidence of the date of sale suggests rising waters that year were the cause.  Mills were particularly vulnerable to flooding.  On May 26, 1771, the rushing waters of the Rivanna destroyed the Peter Jefferson-built mill at Shadwell. Thomas Jefferson called it, “the greatest flood ever known in Virginia.” That spring, the future squire of Snowden, fifteen-year-old Randolph Jefferson, was likely at Shadwell, helping with damage there. Any loss and resultant mess at Snowden, in Buckingham County, was probably the headache of the overseer.

For much more about life at Snowden, consult The Jefferson Brothers.



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